What? No Thomas? Well, at least there’s the … carnival?

10 Apr

I ran into Jimmy “the engineer” Guthrie in the Safeway parking lot the other day, and he was all amped up about changes in management at the Mt. Hood Railroad, and follow-on changes in the way the railroad plans to operate this summer.

To get the scoop, I called Ron Kaufman, the new general superintendent. He replaces Michelle Marquart, who had been largely MIA last summer, focused on personal issues and a new house up in northern Washington.

Lacking on-site guidance, the staff saw morale dive into the tank. Vendors struggled for the support they needed. And customers? Online reviews over the last couple of years have been mixed, ranging from wildly supportive to extremely disappointed.

In comes ownership, and shakes things up. “We’ve had about a 50 percent reduction in staff,” Kaufman says.

Marquart, gone. Kaufman, moves up from operations. Guthrie, steps into the operations job.

Challenged with adding 15,000 more customers this summer, the railroad is looking to pack the trains. So it has cut out 125 train runs, while boosting passenger capacity. Two years ago, the railroad could carry 250 people a day. Now it’s up to more than 600, thanks in part to new rolling stock, including a second dome car.

This season, anyway, it will not host Day Out with Thomas the Tank Engine. Bummer. For several years, Thomas has been a major magnet for visitors — and their dollars.

The Polar Express, however, will return, despite some vocal critics. Kaufman acknowledges that the railroad got about 35 negative comments from people who had brought their kids to ride the Polar Express trains during the 2009 holiday season.

“That’s out of 21,000 people in five weeks,” he says. “Still, expectations were so high, it’s up to us to do everything humanly possible to get it right.”

Look for Polar Express changes in 2010. The train will go only to Pine Grove, stopping near The Fruit Company packing shed. Kaufman says the railroad hopes to carpet bomb the building with lights.

“We’d like to have nicest light display in Hood River County,” he says. “It’s a three- story building, 600 feet long. I’d like to make a really nice display. We hope to dress people inside building in elf theme costumes.”

(Editor’s note: Did anybody ask them? The Buzzer is thinking, that’s not how he’d like to spend the holidays, dressed like an elf and packing fruit. Hmm? But I better stop, before my curmudgeon-ness kicks in.)

The Polar Express will have a gift shop and Santa, natch. Crowd control at the Hood River depot will be improved. People will board at the depot, but disembark to the east, near the Springhouse Cellar (kids love wine!).

Trip timing will change, as well, with afternoon departures at 2 and 4:30, and the last trip of the evening departing earlier — at 7 p.m. This should provide options to adults who want to see something other than a train car full of screaming kids.

Other changes are coming, as well. The railroad is fine-tuning its lunch train, linking motor coach tours out of Portland with the train in Parkdale, where people will get on for a  meal and return ride to Hood River.

Because the Sunday brunch train outsold the dinner trains last season, the railroad has decided to bring in new players for its murder mystery trains. It’s also adding a Fiesta-themed train (if they want, they could call it Day Out With Tacos).

And, in lieu of Thomas, the railroad will host a carnival — including short, $5 train rides — at its parking lot during Labor Day Weekend Sept. 3-5. The Labor Day Carnival Extravaganza will feature the same carnival rides as appear at the Hood River County Fair.

“We’re excited about that,” Kaufman says.

Add to that the adoption of a daily $3 parking fee for the lot ($90 a month), and you can see where the railroad is actively pursuing new revenue sources, some of them having nothing to do with trains. Makes you wonder about the future direction of the company. It’s brings to mind the ski industry, where ski revenue declined and emphasis shifted to real estate development.

Time will tell. In the meantime, here’s hoping all the changes steer the railroad back on track, generate acceptable profits, and keep the excursion trains an attractive reason for people to visit Hood River — this year, next year, and beyond.

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2 Responses to “What? No Thomas? Well, at least there’s the … carnival?”

  1. Devin May 31, 2010 at 5:49 am #

    We are really, really bummed about no Thomas. We have gone every year for about 4 years. Now our youngest of three boys is loving the series….sigh…

    • stuwatson May 31, 2010 at 6:56 pm #

      Word from MHRR is that it’s a one-year hiatus. Look for Thomas to return in 2011.

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